U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Rise and Fall of the Philosophical Gourmet Report

[UPDATED 12/23/14 @11:36 EST:  In the interest of giving readers easier access to Leiter’s version of events, I’ve added a link to the blog post in which Leiter calls certain criticisms of him a “smear campaign.”]

This fall, one of the most powerful institutions in the field of philosophy in this country began to collapse. In 1989, the philosopher Brian Leiter put together a ranked list of what he saw as the top twenty-five philosophy departments. Punning off the name of the Gourman Report – which ranked academic programs at universities and colleges, Leiter called his list the Philosophical Gourmet Report. Over the next several years, Leiter’s list became more elaborate and significant. Although Leiter retained editorial control over the PGR, the lists for the field as a whole and the various subfields were assembled with the help of panels of other philosophers. By the end of the 1990s, the PGR had gone online and was being distributed by Blackwell’s.

Leiter and his list have always been controversial. In addition to the general issues about objectivity that tend to arise whenever such rankings are assembled, the PGR was perceived to have certain biases – especially against Continental Philosophy – that matched those of its founder. Leiter himself developed a reputation for personal combativeness that added to the controversy. Just in the last year, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported back in October,

he told one fellow philosopher that she is “a disgrace” who works for “a shit department,” has threatened to sue another he dismissed on Twitter as a “sanctimonious arse,” and has suggested on one of his three blogs that still another professor should leave the profession “and perhaps find a field where nonsense is permitted.”

In part as a result of such behavior, pressure mounted on Leiter to step aside. Though he called the movement to oust him a “smear campaign,” Leiter appointed a co-editor for his 2014-15 report and announced that he would be leaving his position as editor following this year. But as far as I can tell, the future of the PGR remains in doubt.

Throughout the drama of this fall, philosophers online have written extensively about PGR, the possibility (or impossibility) and the importance (or unimportance) of such rankings, what Leiter and his list have meant in their profession, and what, if anything, ought to replace them. Mitchell Aboulafia, Chair of Philosophy at Manhattan College, has blogged extensively about the PGR as have a number of other philosophers (I found John Protevi’s typology of critiques of PGR particularly interesting).

Throughout the fight over the PGR, I had wanted to write something about it for the blog. But I never felt that I really understood the details well enough to add anything interesting to the conversation you’ll find on philosophy blogs. But before the year is up, I wanted to post something on the controversy, because I think that the rise and fall of the PGR will be a wonderful future topic for U.S. intellectual historians. The appeal of such a ranked list tells us interesting things about the field of philosophy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as do the specific philosophical preferences of Leiter and the PGR. And the timing of the PGR’s collapse is also interesting, as it comes in the midst of a moment in which the philosophical profession is doing serious soul-searching over the problem of (often gendered) bullying within it. And these are just some of the interesting – and important – aspects of this story. It’s obviously much too soon to write this history, but I hope that somebody does once the dust has settled.

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. My thoughts about Leiter and his website are the same now as they were when they first came to my attention: the field of philosophy must be awfully small for someone to be able to set himself up as its arbiter. Whether or not that was Leiter’s purpose or intention, that’s how he was treated. But now he’s been overthrown. Maybe he should have acquired nukes?

    As for PGR being biased against continental philosophy, well, that describes what, 90% of philosophy departments in this country? Leiter’s a Nietzsche guy, so it’s odd, but here I wonder how much is him and how much is a reflection of the discipline as it exists in the US.

    I don’t think such an endeavor would be possible in history. I’m glad no one’s tried, so far as I know. And if one did, I’d hope we historians would resist from the outset, something it’s clear didn’t happen with Leiter.

  2. Fascinating. Sounds like this really is a part of the larger struggle of analytic vs continental, and the huge gender imbalance and overwhelming whiteness of the analytic field. This is definitely worthy of serious study.

  3. I have followed this controversy very closely. Although I do not sympathize with any of the comments he has made to discount his critics, I wouldn’t say that Leiter is setting himself up as an arbiter. If you check out the website, it clearly spells out that it is a process based on the judgment of experts from different fields.

    The problem then is the selection of experts, which definitely excludes against certain approaches to continental philosophy, which Leiter has described as bad philosophy. Leiter, who in interviews has questioned the construction of continental versus analytical, has no issues of including so-called continental figures, such as Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Adorno, etc., in his pantheon of serious thinkers. But he has adamantly attacked Derrida as a charlatan and appears to have no respect for most contemporary philosophers that align themselves with French poststructuralism or are in dialogue with it (I believe his appreciation of Foucault is as a historian of philosophy). In the end, this delineation of the field has to do with a style of thinking and articulating arguments. Here is a good description of how he conceptualizes the divide: http://www.philosophicalgourmet.com/analytic.asp

  4. Thanks for this, and for linking to one of my posts at Daily Nous about it. As a philosophy professor, I agree that the recent events and changes in my discipline are significant and indeed worth a look from intellectual historians.

    There is a lot of material out there. In addition to the many posts about it at Daily Nous and the other sources you link to, and, of course, Leiter Reports, I would recommend looking at Bharath Vallabha’s Rough Ground blog (this is a good place to start: http://theroughground.blogspot.com/2014/10/yes-i-was-addicted-to-leiter-reports.html), and Leigh Johnson’s Archive of the Meltdown (http://www.readmorewritemorethinkmorebemore.com/2014/09/archive-of-meltdown.html).

    If there are other posts or articles about these events in intellectual history circles, I am sure they would be of interest to Daily Nous readers, so feel free to send them along.

  5. Thanks for this post Ben. I’ve always been a little puzzled why philosophy, of all disciplines, would come to fetishize ranking in this way. Given the damage and distortions to the mission of higher education that have been done by the US News and World Report rankings, I would think that most academics would be highly skeptical of ranking systems (even as informal “prestige rankings” clearly shape decisions about graduate school and faculty hiring), but the discipline where skepticism, we would hope, is a substantive part of the training, seems to have gone all in on the PGR, until fairly recently. I am loathe to think that there is something in the “culture of philosophy” of our day that contributes to this, but the old-school sexism and unreflective smugness of some philosophers–e.g. the Colorado department, the Colin McGinn harassment resignation, Leiter’s comments, the various instances documented by women in philosophy, etc.–and the fact that philosophy has been the least receptive discipline in the humanities to gender inclusion does tend to give one pause about the state of philosophy as a critical or self-reflective discipline. I wonder if rankings have become so important in philosophy not because there is consensus, but because philosophy, more than any other humanistic discipline, is marked by very deep disagreements among its practitioners. I think of Michele Lamont’s _How Professors Think_, in which she studied scholarly panels evaluating grant and fellowship applications. Historians had the highest degree of consensus about what constitutes good work in the discipline; philosophers had the lowest, and the strongest disagreements between practitioners. Any thoughts on this puzzle of why philosophy and rankings?

    • In reply to Dan — I think there are also two points worth considering, and I don’t have a well-formulated exploration of these two ideas to present right now, but present Anglophone philosophy is especially beholden to two ideas: (1) a sort of cult of genius, and (2) a laziness or lack of desire for reading widely. It is not like it was even a generation ago (with philosophers like Bernard Williams or Willard Quine or David Lewis, who all read widely and deeply, even outside of philosophy). Many Anglophone philosophers are prone to finding excuses *not* to read something (rankings is the easiest way to justify this process, by eliminating many things from the pool), and they are often drawn to the idea of a thinker being “brilliant,” and rankings is another way to further cement that sort of thinking. Historians–at least it seems to me–were never beholden to either of these concepts as much as philosophers (certainly not laziness, since every historian I know reads a lot). Furthermore, these two intersect with philosophy’s makeup (as mostly male, white, Anglophone, responding to a certain trajectory in the 20th century, etc.) in ways which have yet to be explored, but which I suspect reinforce these two idea(l)s.

      As philosophers might say, it was likely overdetermined that Anglophone philosophy would be hit by the rankings bug.

  6. To Dan’s question, why philosophy and rankings: my informal hypothesis is that the rankings were a last-ditch effort to shore up ideological boundaries in the discipline that were weakening in the last part of the 20th century. The familiar-unfamiliar Anglo-American analytic-Continental European divide, which itself papered over a lot of philosophical diversity (what of American Pragmatism, for example?) long before philosophy underwent much of any change as to ethnic or sex/gender diversity, had cultured provinciality in the schools that remained. Mainstream analytic programs had insulated themselves from the messy, historical, socio-political subject matters while the handful of continental programs, islanded in retreat, began to neglect broader training in philosophy as well, focusing on the traditions and figures more narrowly associated with the terms of their marginalization (Heidegger, Derrida). The hothouse conditions on both sides were underwritten by a holdover culture of monasticism/Oxbridgism: on the analytic side by a socially reassuring formalism of presentation (these and only these kinds of arguments) and on the continental side by a devotional and ultimately deferential culture of stars and acolytes but (for some) no arguments. Change on both sides is and has been very difficult. In a discipline known for smarts but not necessarily for its social skills, any ‘new math’ presents not only an intellectual but also a social challenge, given the subject matters (humans!). We’re living through the oh-my-God moment in the mainstream right now, of which the PGR and its decline are symptoms. In the continental schools, which have taken on more people and subject matters historically underrepresented in Western philosophy, the evaporation of the marginalizing analytic ideology, represented by the actual contours of Leiter’s PGR, means that the hard part will be relaxing ‘continentalist’ boundaries and recognizing the philosophical diversity of tradition buried by the 20th century ideological divide.

    • Catherine: My own experience with philosophers is such that this line from your comment resonated deeply—“In a discipline known for smarts but not necessarily for its social skills, any ‘new math’ presents not only an intellectual but also a social challenge, given the subject matters (humans!).”

      Wow. This post and the discussion below it brings to mind an ongoing, but strong, impression of mine that philosophy, today, feels like an amazingly “un/in-humanist” academic endeavor. The incessant discounting of human frailty, emotion, subjectivity, narrative, and circumstance, as well as the overvaluation of universality, “logic” (or “maths” old and new), objectivity, give me the impression of a profession possessing multiple, unhealthy personalities. What medication might heal this disorder—might make it more human? How can they see “smarts” in a wider frame? How might philosophers be socialized to consider a more complete set of human skills and frailties when they do their work?

      Or maybe my own impressions are hopelessly skewed? Or maybe the criteria for entry into the profession are hopelessly skewed to select for a kind of in/un-humanist type of thinker? – TL

      • Shorter Comment—condensed into two questions: Has philosophy given up its place in the humanities? If so, is that reflected in the PGR and philosophy’s deeper divisions about method and worthy topics of study? – TL

  7. This post records a classic deflection move by Leiter: when under pressure from his base, play the SPEP card! http://proteviblog.typepad.com/protevi/2014/11/playing-the-spep-card.html

    (SPEP is an association of continental philosophers which Leiter has consistently belittled, not to say demonized. I characterize his actions as a puerile vendetta here: http://proteviblog.typepad.com/protevi/2012/11/no-better-way.html

    Leiter has a couple of increasingly transparent self-serving moves when faced with criticism of the PGR:

    1) ignore the substance of the criticism
    2) call his opponents organizers — or dupes — of a “smear campaign”
    3) label them as SPEP members, hence as politically motivated.

    My response to the last claim is to say, “well of course I’m politically motivated; Leiter has been engaged in a relentless smear campaign (ha!) of my organization, so why should that be held against me? Just as Leiter’s attacks on SPEP are politically so are my defenses and counter-attacks. What’s wrong with that? Leiter and I are political enemies on the SPEP issue (though we have made common cause on other issues) so of course both of our motivations are political.”

  8. Thanks so much for this, Ben. I too have been following the PGR fracas, and hoped that it would be presented here for the consideration of US intellectual historians.

    There is one point of contention that should be interesting for historians of science, professionalization, bureaucratization of knowledge, etc–the PGR rankings are based on selected reviewers marking down how “well known” and “well thought of” the faculty at various institutions are. As I understand the process, it is something like: I look at lists of names, and rate departments on the basis of how many people I recognize, filtered through the rubric of whether or not these people are considered good or bad scholars by others. This strikes many (including me) as both clubby and tautological, and the justifications for it always come off, to me, as cynical.

    It seems relevant, too, that many of the people I consider to be the most interesting philosophers in the US do not teach in philosophy departments. They teach in French, German, comp lit, art history, or theology departments. That probably matters, in some way, though I haven’t figured out how….

    PS: Leiter was good on Salaita. Some people showed up for that fight; a lot of people didn’t. Whatever the story with the PGR, I think that Leiter’s advocacy for Salaita is praiseworthy.

  9. According to rational choice theory, rationality itself is a form of ranking. What gets ranked are preferences, and they are ranked with a view to transitivity and completeness—i.e. mathematically.
    Rational choice theory, like analytical philosophy, came to dominance in the US during the early Cold War. The alliance between them has gone largely unnoticed (in spite of S. M. Amadae’s work, for example, on Rawls). But it could help explain why philosophers were so gullible about Leiter’s rankings, which exemplify such ranking.
    As previous posts here have suggested, the profession now exhibits an increasingly Pavlovian character. That is why so many of us have left it. We are far indeed from the great days of either analytical or continental philosophy.

  10. Thanks to all the philosophers showing up here, especially Catherine, whose comment along with those of Martin and John McCumber, suggests something of the deeper historical condition that has contributed to the current crisis. As an outsider, I was under the impression that the analytic/continental divide had been eroded (at least to some extent) over the past thirty years, in the sense that practitioners were not forced into one camp or the other. The return of pragmatism, and a more expansive understanding of American philosophy (which I have seen in the conference programs for the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy), as well as the rise of feminist philosophy, seemed to point to a rejection of the idea that the technical and ahistorical concerns of analytic philosophy provided a sufficient way to conceptualize the dominant practice of philosophy as a discipline. So, I thought, philosophy is headed in a direction of greater intellectual expansion. But instead of pluralism and a respect for diversity of method and type, we get the “return of the repressed” in the form of a system of ranking in which “quality”and “reputation” get to stand in for other forms of exclusion.

    Anyway, this is a very interesting discussion, so thanks to all the contributors.

    • The analytic-continental divide has in some ways been weakened precisely because it has become increasingly unclear about what it points to. Analytic philosophy is now such a broad and diverse field that it can’t be summed up in any neat way other than a professed commitment to clarity, which the Anglophone world praises as one of its key virtues. Though a cursory look at any major philosophy journal dealing with, say, indexicality or supervenience, will surely leave the reader with a feeling of perplexity and lack of clarity because of the highly technical nature of the subject matter, and the vast amount of terms required for even a provisional understanding of the issue at hand. To say, however, that analytic philosophers are dogmatically committed to rationality and logic, however, doesn’t really tell the whole story, as both rationality and logic themselves are serious areas of philosophical inquiry with no real consensus.

      To Tim’s point about philosophy as an anti-humanist discipline: I think there’s a grain of truth to that idea, in that a good deal of philosophy today still models itself on the ideal of science (here understood in the very technical sense of precision). But as far as the types of people attracted to philosophy, or produced by its departments, I don’t think it’s fair to say that their social skills are any worse that academic historians’. Academics of all stripes are largely trained to be anti-social creatures.

      I agree that a hard and fast rankings system is in some sense inimical to the idea of skepticism that philosophy ( should) cultivate, but let’s not kid ourselves. Historians play the ranking game all the time; it’s just more implicit. In today’s job market, no historian has a very good chance of getting even a decent academic job without coming from a particular set of schools, who in essence reinforce the hierarchy of higher-ed. This is no less true of philosophy.

      Perhaps one of the strengths that philosophy might have over history, though, is precisely in the fact that it is much more unclear about what “good” philosophy looks like. Historians might take some cues from this model, as the examination of what “good” history looks like is as much a philosophical question as any. Though we tend to shy away from such questions as being naval gazing, and distractions from the good “yeomans work” of the historical craft.

  11. Thank you all for this discussion. As a continental philosopher with a background in intellectual history, I think that the observations above about whether philosophers understand themselves as part of the humanities or as part of a meta-scientific enterprise is a good way of making sense of why the continental / analytic distinction is so tenacious and still apt. “Continental” has less to do with focusing on works and traditions emanating from the European continent and more about understanding philosophy as part of the humanities, and so it is very open to work in American pragmatism, neocolonialism, critical philosophy of race and much more. Departments that embrace all these (as mine at Emory) see themselves as “pluralist.” So today there’s more of a pluralist / analytic divide. I think analytically-trained people working on issues of race, gender, and disability are increasingly welcoming a pluralist orientation. Time will tell.

    The problem of the PGR was that many of the “experts” assessing which departments excelled in continental philosophy were themselves working largely from an analytic p.o.v. Also there was a good deal of pre-determination of which departments would be evaluated in the first place. So the PGR served to completely overlook valuable work going on in continental philosophy all over the world, including, as John Protevi points out, most of those who were in any way affiliated with SPEP. It claimed that the truly good work was going on in a select group of universities. (John McCumber’s book, Time in the Ditch, gives a good historical account of how this all came to be.) So the PGR both rewrote the meaning of “continental” and at the same time served to erase it.

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